'Gotham's' Ben McKenzie on Playing Gordon: True to DC Spirit But a New Chapter

"I find some of the immediate dismissal of the show if it doesn't have Batman in it silly," he tells THR

Ben McKenzie is putting his badge back on but moving from the streets of L.A. on TNT's Southland to Fox's Gotham.

The Fox drama tells the origin story of Jim Gordon, the man who became the hero to a city and had a direct line to Batman. Only, in the series from showrunner Bruno Heller, Gordon is a rookie cop who meets young Bruce Wayne on the worst day of his life: when his parents are killed.

As Fox's buzzy take — the drama is drawing rave reviews — tells Gordon's story, Gotham also serves as an origin for the Big Bads of Gotham: Penguin, Alfred, Catwoman and more.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with McKenzie to preview his turn as Gordon and how it compares to others who have played the detective, as well as what will surprise viewers about the character.

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How is Gordon different from Southland's Ben Sherman?

He's different in that he believes he is coming back to a city he grew up in to carry on his father's legacy. On Southland, Ben Sherman chose his profession in opposition to his father's profession. His father was a sleazy high-profile D.A. and Sherman wanted to distinguish himself and create identity by enforcing law rather than getting rich people off. Gordon comes in wanting to fulfill his father's legacy and almost immediately realizes his father wasn't who he thought he was. It's tougher and more complicated.

What kind of research did you do for Gotham? Were you a big comics guy?

I didn't grow up reading a ton of comics. I watched the old Adam West Batman with my brother and we had a few stray comics around. I remember reading Iron Man, which I loved. I can't say I'm an aficionado. Geoff Johns sent me Gotham CentralBatman: Long HalloweenYear One, which I was familiar with. I did the voice of Bruce and Bryan Cranston played Jim Gordon [in the animated DVD feature]. Geoff and I went to lunch and I asked him to help me. He said, “This is a cool take on it because there isn't a lot of source material from this chapter of Gordon's life. What there is, we're creating anew with central conceit of Jim as a rookie detective charged with investigating the death of the Waynes.” Coming in contact with Bruce at an early age is a bit of departure from the source material. But that opens up the entire world. You don't have to rely on 12-year-old Bruce to tell the story. You can see Gotham through the eyes of a rookie detective who is an ambitious, smart, dedicated and decorated military hero who is pulled into a chaotic and morally bankrupt land. We're paying due respect to the material as it has been written before. There are many similarities to Gotham Central but because it's an origin story, we feel relatively free to add our own contributions.

Some early critics dismissed the series since Batman won't appear. What do you think of that?

I find some of the immediate dismissal of the show if it doesn't have Batman in it silly. You're not interested in other iterations of mythology that didn't involve Batman. It’s sort of silly because for more than 75 years these stories have been interpreted and reinterpreted countless times by countless numbers of artists. Story points will conflict. If you read one comic it'll conflict with another. We're trying to be true to the spirit and a lot of the characterizations. There’s this kind of mythological stuff and we embrace the spirit of it and say, "Come along with me," to the fans.

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How does your Jim Gordon compare to Gary Oldman's in Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy? What about Neil Hamilton from the '60s Batman?

He falls into the younger version. (Laughs.) He's in a different chapter of his life. You can never do an imitation of someone; that'd be an absolute travesty. He's a war hero and rookie detective who comes back to fulfill his father's legacy. All events that proceed in the pilot change him as they would anyone else in that situation. I let the chips fall where they may. I was more interested in playing him holding on to the thread of being part of his father's legacy. That was kind of the through line I was using. I just don’t think there was much of any margin for trying to be like anybody else or trying to do anyone else’s performance. It wouldn’t work.

What will surprise us about your Jim Gordon?

A lot. He's surprised at the level of corruption and greed and general immorality in Gotham. It's a constant struggle for him to understand how he will ever possibly succeed in a city that seems to be beyond redemption. He can be surprised at his own ability when confronted with evil to cut a deal with the devil to get things done. That is going to be a large part of him: How does he survive in a city that is as immoral as Gotham and still get things done? You have to come to terms with criminal families, corrupt cops and judges.

Since this is a prequel, we know that Gordon may not be so great at his job given that Gotham slowly deteriorates until there's a need for Batman. How will we see Gordon struggle?

What we're telling is a Greek tragedy, where no single man or woman is larger than the world in which he finds him or herself. It's not Gordon is a bad cop; he's the best around but Gotham and the whole system is bigger than him. Even if he advances up the chain, the city is still swallowing him up both in terms of how far it's declining and how it's dragging him down morally. You can't remain unscathed. He's not bad at his job. The city itself is larger than any one person and requires more to dress up.

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How can we expect to see Gordon's and young Bruce Wayne's relationship evolve over the series?

It's a complicated relationship. They bond over shared trauma. Jim lost his father at an age similar to when Bruce lost his dad. Jim sees in Bruce himself and is trying to mentor this young man and keep him from slipping over into a way of being that is filled with hate and anger and in which he will seek vengeance at any cost. We know that Bruce does become Batman, but how they get there and how Jim can get Bruce from slipping — and the times he fails — that's an interesting journey. It has echoes of a father-son relationship and yet at the same time, Bruce is so smart and otherworldly intelligent, that in a way, it’s almost as though they're peers or even that Bruce is more honest. Jim may aspire to all these ideals, but Bruce sees the world the way it is — and the way it is brutal, uncompromising and in need of a masked vigilante to save it. So it’s a heck of a relationship, and I hope it will continue to unspool.

In the comics, Barbara Gordon becomes Batgirl. If Barbara Kean is to marry Gordon, she becomes Barbara Gordon. Is there a possibility she could become Batgirl or could that be saved for the future, maybe for their daughter? Or is there a chance Barbara could become a hero?

You'll have to wait and see. There's a pretty cool twist there that I cannot reveal that will answer all those questions. We're being truthful to the spirit of comics and creating our own version here. It will be very similar to that but different.

Gotham airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on Fox.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit

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